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In Switzerland, whenever a bill is accepted by the parliament, if 50,000 citizens sign a petition against it in a 18 months period, there is a referendum and the bill can be canceled.

Suppose another country, with a highly polarized political system, considers to adopt a similar law. This might be abused by the opposition: whenever the government manages to pass a bill, the opposition will arrange 50,000 signatures and bring it to a referendum. Even if they lose, they put a lot of burden on the system, and effectively "spam" the referendum system.

A possible solution is to allow each citizen to sign only one such petition each year. But, this limitation can be abused by the government: they can pass many similar bills, so that the opponents will exhaust their "signature budget".

Is it possible to design a referendum law that will prevent abuse by both the opposition and the government?

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  • How many petitions would constitute spam? If you ban people from signing more than 1 a year and require 10% of voters for each, that means a maximum of ten per year. If you will allow 1000 a year, then you will need much less stringent measures, like having a really big and confusing form.
    – Stuart F
    Jan 25, 2022 at 10:45
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    In Italy this "almost" happened... The signatures required are 500k ( fixed, not proportional) and due to COVID online signatures using SPID authentication were allowed. Thus a couple of referendums did pass the signature collecting stage even though they had been failing that step for years or decades (e.g. drug legalization). However this is still not that big of an issue, 500k is a big number. Moreover the referendums can be grouped together so the cost is not linearly proportional to the number of referendums triggered.
    – GACy20
    Jan 26, 2022 at 13:11

2 Answers 2

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A highly polarized ("hyperpartisan") country with checks and balances has problems. These will happen whatever the checks and balances look like, and ar not particular to the possibility of a referendum.

  • Any sane system would make the required number of signatures proportional to the population size. The Swiss require approximately 1% of the voters to sign, which is a pretty high number. Contrary to the impression from social media, most people don't have sufficiently strong opinions to get off their couch and sign ...
    But you proposed a highly polarized society, so assume the number of referendums increased sharply.
  • Switzerland can hold several referendums on the same day. A tenfold increase would make the ballot marginally longer. A hundredfold increase would still fit onto one ballot.
    What might be problematic is the need to validate the signatures as coming from a genuine voter. But it wouldn't break the budget to hire a few more clerks.
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Prevent a referendum spam? Is this even a thing? You talk about it like it is a problem but I don't see any references of it being a problem in Switzerland where it is an existing thing. Sure it could be abused but it isn't like people can get petitions done with no effort. I am sure the number they have to get is chosen based on the population size to ensure that there is some effort needed but not making it impossible.

The suggestion of limiting how many petitions that can be signed each year is easily abusable. Just think of a party setting up a petition that can easily draw a lot of support and get a lot of people to sign it. Once that happens it will be much much harder to get people who are eligible to sign a petition for something that is less press worthy but more important to actually object to.

This really seems like a hypothetical question as it requires another country to pass a law and then for the new law to be abused and cause problems.

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    If you want to persuade your country to accept such a law, you have to answer such hypothetical questions. Jan 23, 2022 at 12:15
  • @ErelSegal-Halevi You also have to show that it is a problem and nothing you have shown so far indicates that it is a problem in Switzerland.
    – Joe W
    Jan 23, 2022 at 13:50
  • If I want to change the status-quo in my country, then the burden of persuasion is on me - I have to convince my people that my suggestion does not introduce new problems. Jan 23, 2022 at 14:27
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    @ErelSegal-Halevi I was referring to your question here. You are asking a hypothetical question about a hypothetical country and how to solve a hypothetical problem with your idea. What I am saying is that there is no evidence of problems with it in the country that you are using as an example or why it would be a problem in your hypothetical situation. You claim it could put burdens on the system but don't explain how or why you think it would be that way.
    – Joe W
    Jan 23, 2022 at 14:30
  • @joew I don’t know if I would call it spam, but the California referendum process is (by design) easy enough that they have a lot of citizen referendums, many of which are poorly thought out or contradictory, and which often generate fatigue and annoyance from voters trying to keep track. I can’t say how big a problem it is objectively, but it’s definitely a sentiment I’ve heard from my Californian friends
    – divibisan
    Jan 24, 2022 at 3:48

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